Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft

Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft

Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft

Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft

Synopsis

Though it is difficult enough to write well in one's native tongue, an extraordinary group of authors has written enduring poetry and prose in a second, third, or even fourth language. Switching Languages is the first anthology in which translingual authors from throughout the world examine their experiences writing in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one. Driven by factors as varied as migration, imperialism, a quest for verisimilitude, and a desire to assert artistic autonomy, translingualism has a long and brilliant history. In Switching Languages, Steven G. Kellman brings together several notable authors from the past one hundred years who discuss their personal translingual experiences and their take on a general phenomenon that has not received the attention it deserves. Contributors to the book include Chinua Achebe, Julia Alvarez, Mary Antin, Elias Canetti, Rosario Ferré, Ha Jin, Salman Rushdie, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Ilan Stavans. They offer vivid testimony to the challenges and achievements of literary translingualism. Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska 2000) and The Self-Begetting Novel, and is the co-editor of UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld.

Excerpt

Translingual authors — those who write in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one — are the prodigies of world literature. By expressing themselves in multiple verbal systems, they flaunt their freedom from the constraints of the culture into which they happen to have been born. And they challenge the pronouncement by George Santayana (who himself composed in English, not his native Spanish) that authentic poetry can be written only in the language of the lullabies the poet's mother sang. Though most of the world's population is at least bilingual, few excel even in the native tongue.

No translingual is more dazzling than Vladimir Nabokov, who produced major work in Russian and in English. Prem Chand pioneered modern fiction in Urdu and then proceeded to do the same in Hindi, and Mendele Mokher Sforim is as important to the history of Yiddish literature as he is to that of Hebrew literature. Through his plays and novels, Samuel Beckett became a formidable figure in twentieth-century French literature, though, born in Dublin, he did not learn the language at his mother's knees. And Joseph Conrad, né Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, reinvented himself as a distinguished English novelist, though he came to English, after Polish and French, only in his twenties and, to his dying day, spoke the language with an accent so thick it was sometimes incomprehensible to his wife, Jessie.

But, as illustrated by the example of Andreï Makine, translinguals can be mistrusted and resented as much as admired. Born in Siberia in 1957, Makine grew up speaking Russian but adoring French . . .

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